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Saturday, July 20

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The Ice Harvest
I have a soft spot for Harold Ramis, and not just because he's a Chicago guy whose path has crossed mine a few times over the years. The films Ramis has written (Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghost Busters, Back to School) and directed (Caddyshack, Vacation, Groundhog Day) have had as much of a hand in shaping my sense of humor as those by Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen or Monty Python. I'm intimately familiar with his straightforward approach to comic direction and timing, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for when I went to see The Ice Harvest, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

I don't know if I'm the first, but I'm sure I won't be the last to say that The Ice Harvest is a dark, devious and disturbed new noir that has more humor than similar films from the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple seems the most similar), Red Rock West or A Simple Plan. But even with all the laughs, the film is a major change of pace and style for Ramis, who we discover has as much of an affinity for bloodshed as he does for belly laughs. Set on a frozen-rain-slick Christmas Eve in Wichita (although shot in and around Chicago), The Ice Harvest begins moments after mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (Cusack) and his partner Vic (Thornton) have just taken more than $2 million from a Kansas City underworld boss (Randy Quaid). The details of the heist are never revealed, nor are they important, but as soon as the cash is in hand, trouble begins.

Vic exits the picture for a while to finalize plans to split the money and leave town. Charlie likes to hang out at strip clubs (hooray for boobies!), including one owned by Renata (Connie Nielsen, sexier than ever) who runs the Sweet Cage. She instantly notices a change in his behavior, and makes an educated guess that he's come into a whole lot of money. Charlie hears stories about a mob associate going from club to club looking for him, and he begins to panic. At least in Charlie's mind, things are beginning to unravel.

What's most interesting about The Ice Harvest is the open-endedness of some of the storylines. Characters and plot elements are introduced that don't really have anything to do with the main story and never get resolved. We find out well into the story that Charlie is a divorced father of two, and he largely ignores his kids, even on Christmas. His ex-wife is now married to his still-best friend Pete (the wonderfully drunk Oliver Platt), who now fully understands why Charlie divorced. Their commiserations are the highlights of the film. The vicious screenplay from Richard Russo and Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody's Fool), based on the book by Scott Phillips, handles the bitter domestic angle with thorny accuracy. But even more exciting, the film is real bloody.

The final act of The Ice Harvest is a bloodbath. The mystery figure searching for Charlie and Vic in the strip clubs finally catches up to them. Vic reveals just how much he loves his wife. And both men start second-guessing each other's loyalty to the master plan. And just how much can Renata be trusted? The double crosses are everywhere, and even a hint of suspicion is dealt with by gun or other handy instrument of death. And the final confrontation with Big Boss Randy Quaid is like a masterfully choreographed sack of nasty.

My instant reaction to The Ice Harvest was, "Please, Mr. Ramis, may I have another?" Cusack and Thornton don't need any help finding the humor in any situation, Cusack taps into some of the badass mannerisms he had in Grosse Pointe Blank, and while Thornton doesn't quite go the Bad Santa route (despite the Christmastime setting), he doesn't need to. He's got some great line deliveries here. Platt steals every scene he's in at gunpoint. You've seen him do it 100 times before, and it never gets old; the guy is that good and reliable. Most importantly, the film doesn't feel forced or awkward in Ramis' hands. Some may find the mixture of big laughs and messy violence off-putting, but those people need to get over it. This film is a scream.


Rent
I thought the film adaptation of this 10-year-old stage phenomenon was a sure thing. I know people who consider seeing the musical Rent one of the highlights of their lives, and I thought at its worst the film might lose some of that luster, but still rock the house. I never saw the rock musical, nor am I particularly familiar with La Boheme, the opera that inspired it, so I really had no idea what to expect. I knew that AIDS played a big part in the stories of these characters, people living on the fringe among other artists in New York's Alphabet City. I have nothing against musical theatre or movie musicals, but something about Rent didn't connect, and I have a sneaking suspicion that even fans of the stage version are going to find it lacking.

Part of the problem is time. I'm pretty certain that these characters are supposed to be in their 20s, but in casting most of the original 1996 Broadway stars, the filmmakers now have a group of largely 30-somethings, who seem too old to be touting the idealized bohemian lifestyle that serves as the running theme of this show. Only the new cast member Rosario Dawson (as the HIV-positive stripper/junkie Mimi) seems about the right age, and her energy goes a long way to keeping this film afloat. But even if you can put aside the age of the cast members, time still works against the film. The subject of AIDS has been dealt with extensively and creatively in the last 10 years. As recent films like The Dying Gaul and Loggerheads (or even HBO's adaptation of Angels in America) have proven, the subject is still important and worthy of exploration, but Rent's approach feels dated and manipulative.

Ever since films like Longtime Companion or Silverlake Life, I've felt that telling us the truth about AIDS has been the most effective means of communicating the tragedy the epidemic in film. Rent sugarcoats it, despite the inclusion of multiple HIV-positive characters, one of whom dies from the disease. I'm prepared for an onslaught of hate mail on this point, and that's okay. I was impressed that Rent showed so many HIV-positive characters being fully active, singing, dancing and just being generally sassy, but when the one character dies (a character, by the way, that we hardly get to know enough to be sad about his passing), the power ballads kick in and the emotional connection is lost.

Time to preach. Is Rent a movie about AIDS? Some might argue it's not. But with about half of the main characters (not all of them gay) afflicted, it's certainly an element that is always present. And despite the presence of scenes involving a support group, the film never really tackles the big pink elephant in the room: it's the very devil-may-care attitude toward life, sex and drugs that Rent is promoting that is a major contributor to the AIDS problem. Again, I don't look at this as a gay or straight issue (and neither does the film), but this oversight is huge shortcoming of these characters and this film. Let me know your thoughts on this. Maybe I'm way off base (it's been known to happen).

Let's talk about characters. Rent is filled with clichés, whom I found nearly impossible to connect with. Trust me, the starving artist and I are old friends, but these characters' sole defining feature is that they don't want to pay for anything. The film opens with a group of artists living rent-free in a building set to be converted into a business by Benny (Taye Diggs), who used to hang with these cats until he sold out and got a job. This poor guy is abused more than any one else in the film, and it really turned me off. He cuts these people every break in the book as far as living on the property for free, and they still call him a sellout for no other reason than he wears a tie. I actually think we're supposed to see this guy as the villain here, but I never did. He really did seem to be helping his friends, and they humiliate him repeatedly. I'm sorry, but isn't reverse-economic discrimination still a form of prejudice?

And what about these "artists"? In addition to Mimi, we have Roger (Adam Pascal), a would-be rock star with adequate scruff and longish hair. His roommate, Mark (Anthony Rapp), is a filmmaker, whose best work seems to be simply putting together a montage of the gang laughing and hanging out. It reminded me of one of those ridiculous soda commercials where the people are being wacky because they're drinking Diet Sprite, or some such nonsense. Others in the group include Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel), a performance artist, whose protest piece about the redevelopment of the neighborhood is probably the highlight of the film. It actually embraces the fact that most performance art is silly. Menzel is one of the few performers I could actually appreciate, primarily because her voice is spectacular (more recently she played The Wicked Witch in the original Broadway cast of Wicked). Maureen has recently become a lesbian, so Joanne (Tracie Thoms, also possessing a powerful set of pipes) is introduced into the group.

Rounding out the cast is Tom Collins ("Law & Order's" Jesse L. Martin) and drag queen boyfriend Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who seem like the most fun in the bunch, but the film unwisely focuses on some of the less interesting characters. The overall difficulty I had in getting behind these folks is that they never seem to consider the situations they find themselves dealing with. They just back their friends without any thought to the circumstances. As a result, the film has the emotional depth of an episode of "Melrose Place" (to keep things more or less in the timeframe of the story, which is the late 1980s to early 1990s).

Much like the characters, the songs are hit and miss. I'm sure in a live setting, they were far more impressive, but in the film they sound sterile and overproduced. Actually, I could say the same thing about Rent in general. As directed by Chris Columbus—his first film since the second Harry Potter film—Rent comes across simply uninspired and worn out. I think the "could-have-heard-a-feather-hit-the-concrete" response from the group I saw this film with might be an indicator that I'm not far off the mark. But I am genuinely curious what the rest of you think, particularly those who saw Rent on stage.


Just Friends
Without realizing it, I've grown somewhat fond of Ryan Reynolds. He completely lacks the ability to be embarrassed about the crappy films that he makes, and I respect that. His finest work is, of course, Van Wilder, but he's managed to make me laugh despite myself in Blade: Trinity and Waiting earlier this year. He's at his best when he's simply allowed to cut loose, but Just Friends is PG-13, which means slap on the comedy handcuffs! Reynolds plays Chris, a fat kid in a New Jersey high school in love with his best friend, Jamie (Amy Smart). After a humiliating attempt to date Jamie, Chris leaves New Jersey, loses a bunch of weight, and becomes a successful record company executive in Los Angeles. While babysitting a spoiled "It" girl (Anna Faris) in an effort to secure the distribution rights to her debut album, Chris ends up back in New Jersey 10 years after graduation and reunites with his family and friends for a couple days.

You pretty much know where this is going, as Chris attempts to exit the "Friend Zone" with Jamie with his new and improved smarmy self. Is the ending ever really in doubt? Even with the PG-13 rating, there's still some amusing physical comedy on hand, particularly the back-and-forth abuse between Chris and his younger brother (Chris Marquette). I also liked Chris Klein as the sensitive guitar-playing hunk, who appears to be competing with Reynolds for Jamie's affections, but is actually just trying to get back at her for blowing him off in high school. Just Friends is a throwaway movie, but since much of it is set during the Christmas holiday, it has some fun with those who get just a little too into the spirit of things. Were it not for Reynolds, the film would be a car wreck. Instead Just Friends is more like a friendly love tap on the bumper. Plus, Reynolds in a fat suit lip-synching "I Swear" by All 4 One is pure comedy.


Dorian Blues
Slight and disjointed but still sweet and amusing, Dorian Blues manages to find a moderately fresh approach to a high school boy coming out of the closet to his family and friends. The direction and look of the film is strictly amateur hour and the acting is hit and miss, especially when it comes to Dorian's overbearing, homophobic father and seemingly oblivious mother. Still, there are moments in Dorian Blues that are very funny, particularly the attempts by Dorian's football player older brother to turn him straight (at Dorian's request) by fighting each other and going to a strip club (where Dorian, of course, only notices how pretty the strippers' shoes are).

Writer-director Tennyson Bardwell has his heart in the right place with this film, and the movie takes some unexpected serious turns in its third act as Dorian moves to New York, where he assumes his life will improve. What I found endearing were the glimpses of Dorian's friends (the scene of Dorian's first male kiss is a hoot) and the relationship he shares with his brother struck me as authentic and charming. If anything, Dorian Blues forces its humor to the point where it feels obvious. Bardwell seems to be going for Napoleon Dynamite for the gay teen sect, when opting for a more realistic portrayal of Dorian's might have worked better and been much funnier. Still, the film succeeds as a breezy amusement that could have been better but still gets the job done. Dorian Blues opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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